A retired Marine and his service dog were denied a seat on an American Airlines flight the same day they had been honored with the Service Dog of the Year award.
Jason Haag, his wife, and his dog Axel were returning from the American Humane Association Hero Dog Awards where Axel had been honored as the Service Dog of the Year on Sunday when American Airlines employees at Los Angeles International Airport refused to allow them to board a plane to Reagan National Airport.
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The airline employees did not believe that Axel was a service dog though Haag provided an animal identification card. Axel was also wearing a harness identifying him as a service dog.
The denial appears to be in violation of American Airlines policy, which requires only one of those forms of identification to allow a service dog on one of their flights.
The denial came as a complete surprise to Haag. "We got to LAX and everything was fine," he told the Washington Free Beacon. "I checked into the ticket counter with Axel with no problems at all. They knew he was a service dog. Didn't have any problems. We were issued our ticket. We got through security and checked our bags. We ate lunch and then went and sat down right at our gate."
"We were there probably an hour and a half before we were supposed to board."
Haag said he and Axel, who was wearing his service harness, were within full view of the employees at the ticket counter while they waited for their flight to arrive.
"Then about five minutes before we were supposed to board I got pulled out of line," he said. "[The agent] called me up to the ticket counter and the first thing out of his mouth was, ‘Is that a real service dog?'"
When Haag affirmed that the dog was a service animal, the employee then informed him that Axel was not in the system.
Haag said he had called American Airlines days before to tell them about Axel and had flown to Los Angeles three days earlier with him on the airline without issue.
The employee then began asking Haag personal questions.
"He's like, ‘Well, what's your disability?' and I was like, ‘Excuse me?' because that's not a question you're allowed to ask under the rules and regulations," Haag said. "Then he started firing off questions in rapid succession."
Haag was diagnosed with a traumatic brain injury and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) after returning from two tours of duty in the Middle East five years ago.
His situation improved when he became involved with K9s for Warriors, a charity that provides veterans like Haag with service dogs. That's how he met Axel, a German shepherd. Before the two were brought together, Axel was a week away from being put down by the shelter in which he was living.
Axel has helped Haag to cope with his PTSD and traumatic brain injury.
"I wouldn't be sitting here without Axel," Haag said. "I mean, he saved my life 100 percent. He saved my life, he saved my family."
Now Axel goes wherever Haag does and helps him through stressful situations such as the one he experienced at the American Airlines gate on Sunday.
Haag said the agent accused him of fabricating the identification documents for the dog. "He tells me, ‘You could've just bought this off the Internet, it's fake,' and he throws it back down on the desk."
"Then my wife chimed in and said ‘what about the service vest he's got on? He said ‘you can buy that online too.'"
After offering to have officials from the American Humane Association or K9s for Warriors speak to the American Airlines staff, Haag said the airline refused to budge.
"At this point my wife was starting to cry," he said. "There's like 200 people standing there watching this whole thing while these people are embarrassing the holy hell out of me."
The decision to deny the Haags and Axel service on the flight left them stranded in Los Angeles for the night.
Haag said the airline did not remove their luggage from the flight, so they were left with just the clothes on their back, which would constitute a significant security violation, as checked bags are typically matched with passengers as a preventative measure against terrorist attacks.
American Airlines did not offer to put them in a hotel for the night or provide any other support.
However, the American Humane Association was there to help the Haags and Axel, ensuring they got a ride back to the Beverly Hilton where the awards ceremony had been held, some clean clothes, and food.
"Captain Haag is a decorated Marine officer who served in Iraq and Afghanistan, multiple tours of duty," said Robin Ganzert, CEO of the association. "He came back suffering those invisible wounds of war, PTSD."
"But he found Axel and Axel found him. They're a great duo."
Ganzert was shocked to hear they'd been denied access to their flight. She tweeted her displeasure to the airline.
"There was really not much help at all offered on Sunday to get this wounded warrior back home with his family," Ganzert told the Free Beacon. "He has three kids back home. He needed to be back home on Sunday."
"It was just a terrible situation and embarrassing! In front of a busy gate for a cross-country flight and you're singling this man out asking questions about his disability? It's just inconceivable to me."
"Without airfare, we have absorbed $1525 in extra expenses for hotel, food, clothes, and transportation," Ganzert said. "The airfare is still in process as we are trying to get a credit processed against his initial flight."
The American Humane Association hopes the incident leads airlines to adopt better training procedures for their staff regarding service dogs. "It's shameful," Ganzet said. "It should be a wake up call for airlines to review their policies immediately."
American Airlines said they are currently investigating the incident and have apologized to Haag and his family. "We take these matters very seriously and are looking into what exactly occurred," Andrea Huguely, a spokesperson for the airline, told the Free Beacon. "Even though there was an issue with Haag’s and Axel’s travel we are very happy to say that Haag, his wife, and Axel traveled with us, once again, today. We have apologized to both Haag and his family and are very appreciative of his service to our country."
Haag said he hoped his ordeal might lead to action in forming a national registry for service dogs so no other veterans have to go through the same thing. "Service dogs are not going to go away," he said.